OKLAHOMA CITY – Seven-foot-1 Marc Gasol sat at his locker, both knees buried under a mountain of ice wrapped in plastic as bruise-brother Zach Randolph slowly made his way to the showers, teetering from side to side as if walking on wooden pirate legs.
Yes, the bludgeoning has begun in this anticipated battle between a half-ton of big men. The Memphis Grizzlies’ old-school duo (and inarguably the craftiest low-post offensive tandem going) are so far doling out the type of punishment that has to be concerning for Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks and his defensive-minded tandem of Serge Ibaka and the ever-scowling, always-scrutinized Kendrick Perkins as this series, tied 1-1, moves to Memphis’ Grindhouse.
This matchup has yet to devolve into the dislike and sumo-wrestling tactics seen in the first round when Randolph battled Los Angeles Clippers nemesis Blake Griffin. But Randolph stressed that nothing has come easy in attaining his and Gasol’s impressive totals through two games: 38.5 ppg on 29-for-55 shooting (52.7 percent), 16.5 rpg and 6.0 apg.
“We’re just playing hard. I’m trying to stay away from that,” Randolph said, referring to the extracurricular activity between he and Griffin. “I’m just trying to play my game, play physical. I’m not trying to get into no altercation, ain’t trying to be like last series, me and Blake, just trying to go out and play.”
And for an extra tweak aimed at the vacationing Griffin, the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Randolph said this of the Thunder’s combo of Ibaka and Perkins:
“They are tough. They’re tougher than the Clippers — Ibaka and Perkins — they’re tougher than Blake. So yeah, they’re tough and they’re strong.”
In Tuesday’s Game 2, when Kevin Durant did everything imaginable and it still wasn’t enough, he was asked to take a turn defending the 265-pound Gasol. That strategy that backfired as Gasol scored seven of his 17 first-half points in a span of 96 seconds that flipped a 39-35 Thunder lead into a 45-42 deficit.
Late in the third quarter, Ibaka and Perkins each sat with four fouls, halting what might have been their best defensive quarter. Perkins held Gasol without a shot attempt until heading to the bench with about three minutes left, and Randolph scored four points on two shot attempts.
Down 54-51 at halftime, OKC managed a 74-69 lead after three.
But the fouls kept Ibaka, who has 10 rebounds and six blocks in the series, on the bench from the 4:29 mark of the third to 8:40 of the fourth as Memphis surged. Perkins sat out until the final 3:03 of the game when reserve forward-center Nick Collison fouled out. Perkins also drew the wrath home fans during that third quarter after bumbling plays where he couldn’t convert offensive rebounds and clumsily threw away two other possessions.
No one expects Ibaka and Perkins to match Randolph and Gasol on offense, but the gap has been especially brutal with Ibaka struggling with his mid-range jumper. He showed signs of breaking out in Game 2, going 5-for-12 after an 0-for-4 start, but he’s just 6-for-22 in the series for 16 points, or about what Randolph is averaging (16.5 ppg). Combined, Ibaka and Perkins are 8-for-32.
Meawhile, Gasol has been terrific maneuvering against Perkins, scoring inside with foot work and hooks and outside with set shots. He’s averaging 22.0 ppg so far on 59.3-percent shooting despite near-constant double-teaming by Thabo Sefolosha, who is often the help defender.
“It’s not about that matchup,” said Gasol, who landed an unintentional but direct upper arm shot to Perkins’ nose in Game 2. “It’s about Grizzlies against the Thunder, not about one guy against another. It’s more about how I can help my team win the game. That’s how I look at it.”
Perkins is no offensive threat, but he is a favorite of Brooks and teammates. His screen-setting, defensive muscle and rebounding are imperative for the Thunder to advance. Asked if it takes a well-trained basketball eye to appreciate the plodding Perkins’ value to OKC, Brooks quickly fired back.
“If you look at winning percentage, you just have to know what’s higher from what’s lower,” Brooks said. “He wins. And you can talk about the stats all you want but he helps us win games. He’s not going to score 15, 20 points, but he’s going to impact the game. He’s a great low-post defender and he’s playing against an All-Star, playing against one of the best centers in the game and he has to be able to do it every time for 30-something minutes.”
Perkins only made it 24 minutes in the 99-93 Game 2 loss with four points, six rebounds, four fouls, one block and three turnovers. The grumbling from the Thunder faithful in the third quarter seemed to come whenever the ball neared his hands.
A bull on a team of thoroughbreds, Perkins said he doesn’t believe the fans have lost faith in him.
“Nah, not really,” Perkins said. “You got probably one out of every 15 that probably say something negative or say something about, ‘He don’t do this or he don’t do that,’ instead of just appreciating what you bring to the table. At the end of the day it is what it is. Grandpa always told me a pair of lips can say anything.”
Coming off the six-game Houston series — a spread-it-out, up-and-down free-for-all — in which Perkins played just 15.5 mpg, Brooks’ lips predicted this series to be designed for Perkins.
And it still might. Despite Memphis’ inside advantage, both games have come down to the wire. Durant, with so much responsibility on his shoulders minus Russell Westbrook, needs help. Kevin Martin must show up every game to help an adjusting offense prone to fits of inactivity.
But OKC’s defense, stingy all season, has allowed four quarters of at least 27 points and three of 30 or more to a team not known for scoring.
That can’t continue, which means OKC’s big men need to bring some more thunder into the paint.